In trying to find an answer to the eternal question “what makes a sports competition memorable?”, many have cited ‘beautiful plays’, ‘the enthusiasm of the fans’, and ‘spectacular goals’. What makes a competition truly complete however, is that sometimes, against all odds, the underdog can defeat the favorite and create a surprise.
Today at the Baba Yara Stadium of Kumasi, Egypt created such a surprise: largely dominated throughout most of the match, the Pharaohs taught their Cote d’Ivoire opponents a true lesson in efficiency, capitalizing on over 75% of their scoring opportunities and putting the ball into the net for a total of 4 times! The final scoreline really doesn’t do justice to this match, because the Elephants continuously multiplied their shots on target (notably through Didier Drogba) but found the magic hands of superkeeper Essam El-Hadary parrying everything away.
Tactically, Les Ã‰léphants coach Gerard Gili decided to play a bit of a gamble in this semi-final fixture by fielding Kolo Touré at the heart of the Ivorian defense (despite the Arsenal center-back was still trying to find his best form). Brother Yaya from Barcelona occupied the midfield position, but much like his sibling, his fitness condition was a big question mark before this game and ultimately (and unfortunately for Cote d’Ivoire) both Kolo and Yaya had considerable trouble with their defending tonight. Gili’s reasoning was undoubtedly that with people like Aruna Dindane, Salomon Kalou, and superstriker Didier Drogba, scoring the goals was going to take care of any defensive problem the Ivorians would encounter. A bad gamble as we weill see.
As for Egypt, coach Hassan Shehata (the same that brought the Pharaohs to the 2006 ACN victory) had to leave Mohamed Zidan on the bench (the Hamburger SV striker still recovering from injury) and instructed Wael Gomaa to man-mark Drogba for the entire match (a task which the Al-Ahly center-back executed averagely well, but fortunately for him his keeper would lend him two big hands). Goalscoring duties were left to the attacking trio Emad Motaeb, Mohamed Aboutreika, and Amr Zaky.
Ivory Coast started the match as expected, immediately taking their role of bookie favorites and grabbing most of the ball possession. Wing-backs Emmanuel Eboué and Arthur Boka participated in the build-up, but never seemed wanting to push up as far as the goal-line to get in their crosses, a cautious attitude that was amplified by the surprise lead of their opponents, as early as minute 12.
Indeed, just minutes after what may have been the first real chance of the match (a close-range Drogba shot inside the box, neutralized by Al Hadari), it was Egypt who got off to a flying start when Ahmed Fathi somehow found the back of the net in minute 12. Following a corner-kick for the Pharaohs, the defence clearance landed way back to Fathy, whose hard shot from outside the box bounced off of Kalou and into the goal. 1-0 Egypt.
A brutal shower for the Ivorians, who were shaken and now had to hunt down a goal deficit very early into the game. Up until half-time the Elephants litterally laid siege to the Egyptian goal, but Didier Drogba was denied time and time again, firstly on the half hour mark when goalkeeper Essam Al Hadari was quickly off his line to block the Chelsea striker’s effort, then right on the stroke of half-time when his towering header was kept out by yet another save of the Egyptian nº1.
At the end of the first 45 minutes, Ivory Coast was thus trailing by one goal, and it certainly didn’t help that in the meantime, they had lost their starting keeper Boubacar “Copa” Barry to injury (in came Stephan Loboué to replace him). Blow after blow for Drogba’s teammates today, and unfortunately for them the day would only get longer.
Speaking of Drogba, the Chelsea man really should have scored 3 minutes after the break when he found himself unmarked inside the box, but once again he directed his header too close to Al Hadari who, like a magnet, seemed to attract towards his hands every goalbound shot the Ivorians were sending him.
Unfortunately for the Elephants and their supporters (and much like in the 1st half), a goal came against the run of play when Egypt doubled their lead on minute 62: from an inswinging corner of Ahmed Hassan, Didier Zokora tried to clear at the near post, succeeding only in guiding the ball to Amr Zaki. Waiting for the ball to arrive, the Al-Zamalek striker directed his header in off the crossbar, with the Ivory Coast keeper stationary. 2-0 Egypt.
There was truly no time to breathe in this match however, especially for the Ivorian players and fans who, within exactly 240 seconds following Egypt’s second goal, had successively their hopes revitalized and then immediately crushed.
Let’s proceed in order. Minute 63, goal nº3: Abdelkader Keita hitting the ball with venomous power on the edge of the box, and in the blink of an eye (with Al Hadari diving in vain this time) the ball was in the back of the net. Immediately followed by minute 67, goal nº4: a long ball collected by Amr Zaki and moving towards goal. Kolo Touré foolishly turning his back, thus losing track of where Zaki was and allowing the Egypt striker to move a further few steps before drilling the ball into the bottom corner. 2-1 Egypt and 3-1 Egypt in quick succession.
If there ever was a knock-out blow, Egypt had delivered it with powerful force and with a horseshoe hidden inside the boxing glove. Teeth-breaking stuff. The remaining 20 minutes or so went by like an exact mirror image of the rest of the match: Ivory Coast attacked, Al Hadari made another couple of super saves (first on Kolo Touré, then on Boka), Egypt scored another goal. Sounds familiar right? In minute 90, with everyone that was wearing an orange shirt pushing forward, the Pharaohs intercepted and brought the ball on the other side of the field with lightning speed: Zidan charged up the left flank and delivered a perfect ball to an unmarked Mohamed Aboutreika, who executed a slamming shot home for the 4-1 Egypt final scoreline.
Egypt will thus go on to defend their African Cup of Nations crown on Sunday, against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon team which defeated Ghana 1-0 in the other semi-final (full report on Soccerlens). The clash between the 4-time (Cameroon) and the 5-time tournament winners (Egypt) sure promises to be full of excitement. Hey, if it’s anything like this game(goaltotal-wise), that would make any neutral supporter a very happy man.
Marco Pantanella is the author and editor of the mCalcio blog